We’ve been discovered by America this morning, as Tim Graham of the Culture and Media Institute does a follow up article (click here) to his piece of last Friday, lambasting the Washington Post for its rave review of Sandra Bernhard’s show. Other terrific reviews are mentioned as well. As is the video we posted last week. In response to Graham’s article, we’ve had over 800 hits in the last 90 minutes and a stream of invective flowing in from all points.
To be fair, Sandra lets a stream of invective flow too during her 110 minute show. It’s a show with lots of new material in it, and it’s a different show every night, with some bits appearing for a night or two and then leaving, and other new bits showing up later and sticking around but well after the reviewers have come and gone. We want to share a little of that process with you. Like the curtain call, when Sandra comes back to tell us what she really hopes for; about the optimistic age she wishes we were living in; about the blanket of love she’d like all of us to be wrapped in. She reaches out to many. She reaches out to Sarah Palin. Yes, believe it or not. No, Tim Graham wasn’t there to see it, or hear it. You do have to experience the whole performance.
Sandra’s an artist. She’s not not only a hate speaker. She puts on characters for effect. She plays a variety of figures in this show — black female ex-patriots; drag queens; rock n roll groupies; she even plays a character named Sandra Bernhard who riffs on a great many subjects. But it’s a show and isn’t necessarily her. It isn’t hate speech when Sandra effects a character who’s alienated and upset by her times. It’s a performance of disaffection and frustration.
And all that being said, even some democrats right here in DC are upset by the excerpts they’ve read. And you are free to read on our blog of some good friends of our theater who were offended by a performance, even as two thousand (and counting) others have been giving Sandra Bernhard a nightly standing ovation.
Why are they standing? Not strictly because of the ferocity of her political critique. They stand because the woman is talented and she expends a tremendous amount of generous energy. They stand because she sings with extraordinary passion and range, and she reveals an awful lot about herself, her generation, our times, and the times we’ve left behind. The Palin jokes occupy 5% of the show. The Joe and Hadassah Lieberman jokes occupy 1% of the show. Sandra’s anger with members of the Jewish community who might be voting for McCain-Palin; 1% of the show. What’s the bulk of the show about? Come find out.
At Theater J, we make new plays. We work with some of the best writers in the world, like Thomas Keneally (author of Schindler’s List, who premiered his play, Either Or, about Kurt Gerstein, the Nazi officer who petitioned the Vatican to intercede after he witnessed the exterminations in the concentration camps) and dozens of other authors who write and rewrite as they see their work unfold. Sandra Bernhard is fashioning a new version of WITHOUT YOU I’M NOTHING, the show that ran forever Off-Broadway 20 years ago, and in retooling this show for our times, she’s literally stumbled about the Republican convention as fodder for some new material. How much of it will stay in the show? How much will end up on the cutting room floor? Well, even the cutting room floor is a public venue in the theater and Sandra has shared some provocative material with our audience. We’re mature enough to understand what it means and what it doesn’t mean.
Guess what? When Sandra’s character says she stared down Cindy McCain and snapped the woman’s elbow — that’s why the woman’s in a cast — she doesn’t mean she actually did it. It’s a comic’s violent exaggeration, but everyone in the theater knows it isn’t real. It didn’t happen. It’s an expression of what? Powerlessness? A desire to act out or fight back when one can’t? It’s a lot of things. For some people — for a lot of people in our theater — it’s funny. I can understand that for a great many other people in our nation, seeing or reading of this comment — that she’d break the woman’s other arm — isn’t funny at all. It’s disgusting and horrible. You know what? Out of the context of a comic performance of a woman donning a character, it can be construed as unfunny. But within the theatrical idiom, it comes off differently.
We thank you for checking out our theater. There is a message of hope and ecumenical tolerance at the heart of what we’re trying to achieve here. Even in Sandra’s show. It’s complicated. It isn’t hate ful. There’s hope for all of us.